Why is it that baking gets all the credit for making a house feel homey? I know the old idea that you should have something baking in the oven, cookies or fresh bread, to welcome guests to your home. But when did those things win the prize for most comforting? Why can’t it be soup? That deep to-the-tips-of-your-toes warming that a good hot cup of soup can bring; the way a simmering pot can perfume a whole house. Why can’t it be soup? Soup au pistou, or kale soup, or really any soup, to warm you on a cold and windy day.
And here’s the thing about soup au pistou: it takes at least some of those problems – the under seasoning, the lack of fresh or bright flavors – and fixes them without a lot of extra time or fancy ingredients. Traditionally, soup au pistou is vegetable soup with “pistou” which is a French word for something very similar to pesto; a puree of basil and garlic and parmesan and olive oil. But it’s really the idea that’s brilliant. Take a plain vegetable soup, maybe with beans or pasta, maybe without, and add a fresh, salty, complex flavor to it. Use a spoonful of pesto, or sundried tomato paste, or tapenade, or even caponata – a garlicky, vinegary, eggplant dip – to brighten up a bowl of soup. Will it be the most transcendent fine-dining-esque bowl of soup you’ve had? Well, probably not. But a bowl of hot soup with a spoonful of fresh flavor dolloped right in there – that’s maybe the closest food can come to a hug.
Soup au Pistou
Below I’ve described the way to make homemade soup with homemade pistou and the results are great, if I do say so myself. But honestly, for days when it’s late and the day was long and you just want dinner, store bought things, be it the soup or the topping or both, work just as well. Really.
For the soup:
1 quart chicken stock, or vegetable stock, or water (or broth instead of stock, no big deal)
1 tbs olive oil
2-3 cups of add-ins – I used kale, onions, carrots, and celery but it’s also good with elbow macaroni, small tortellini, orzo, rice, or beans
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes – I like the tomatoes but if you don’t, leave them out. You could add more things to replace them but you could also just have soup with fewer “chewables.”
2-4 tsp kosher salt
For the pistou:
2 cups, packed, basil leaves, which is about a bunch of basil with the leaves picked from the stems
1/4 cup grated parmesan (about 1 oz of cheese)
1/4 cup olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic (depending on how strong you like the garlic flavor
1 tsp kosher salt
In a large pot, big enough to hold all the liquid, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add hard vegetables first (like onions, carrots, and celery), and cook them until they’re translucent and maybe a little brown at the edges, about 5 minutes, seasoning with about 1/4 teaspoon of salt.* Then add vegetables that need less time (like kale, other greens, or frozen peas), and cook for another five minutes until they wilt or defrost, and season again. Then add things that need to simmer (like beans or uncooked rice/pasta, or shredded chicken or sausage if you’re into that) along with the liquid and can of tomatoes if using. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce it to low and taste it to check the seasoning. Add at least 1 tsp salt and maybe more depending on the saltiness of your stock/broth and your own preference. If you added uncooked rice or pasta, continue to simmer, tasting the grains every 10-15 minutes to check for doneness. Once they’re done you can hold the soup on low heat (although the grains may get a little overdone and mushy) or serve it right away. Or keep the soup in the fridge for up to a week and heat it up when you need it.
While the soup is simmering, you can make the pistou. If you have a hand blender or a full size blender you can just combine all the ingredients except the salt and blend them together until they form a paste. Then taste the paste and add salt a little at a time until it tastes seasoned. You might need more than the 1 tsp of salt depending on how you like your pesto/pistou. If you don’t have a blender, chop the basil and garlic very finely on a cutting board until you have a sort of green confetti. But this into a large bowl and add the cheese and oil. Stir to combine the ingredients and then taste to see how much salt is needed. Add salt until it tastes the way you like it. You can store the pesto in the fridge for up to a week as well although the top layer will discolor and turn brown in the fridge. It’s not bad but if you don’t like the way it looks just scrape that layer away or stir it in before you serve it.
To serve the soup, ladle out big bowl of the steaming deliciousness and either add a tablespoon of pistou for each diner or put a bowl of pistou on the table and let everyone choose how much they want to add.
* Could you cook the vegetables by just boiling them in the liquid? Sure, but honestly they don’t taste quite as good when done that way. The quick sauté in the pan makes a big difference in the final bowl of soup and it doesn’t take much extra time either.